The increasing use of advanced surveillance technologies by law-enforcement officers in the United States raises issues for citizens’ fundamental rights.
Automatic licence plate readers, surveillance cameras and facial recognition software – these are all examples of modern surveillance techniques whose use is now increasing by leaps and bounds across the United States. In 1997, about 20% of all US police departments were using some type of surveillance technology. By 2007, that figure had risen to over 70%, according to an article by Stephen Rushin, Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. “This radical shift in policing is the beginning of what I call the digitally efficient investigative state,” he writes. In this new environment, advanced technology is being implemented in a bid to substantially improve the effectiveness of police investigations and surveillance. However a serious issue raised by the professor is that these technologies are being used by state and local police departments without any consistent rules.
Monitoring the community rather than individuals?
In the United States, the spotlight is currently on the much-publicised activities of the National Security Agency, and “we don’t tend to think of our local police force as being particularly scary, intimidating or worrisome,” underlines Professor Rushin. He points out that these technologies could be used not only to track down a ‘wanted’ suspect but also to keep tabs on an entire community. This ability to keep everyone under surveillance at the same time at the very least “ought to pose significant privacy concerns to law-abiding citizens,” he argues. Up to now, there has been a general belief that citizens had no expectation of privacy in public places. However, suggests Rushin, this was probably because people saw the authorities’ surveillance capability as rather limited. Nowadays, given the new techniques in this field, any local police officer can gather large quantities of data on an individual person or a whole section of the population without having to apply for a court order. This consequently raises questions over data storage and integrity.
Professor Rushin argues that the federal legislative bodies ought to be taking the lead in regulating the use of surveillance techniques and limiting the retention, access to and sharing of data obtained by efficient digital public surveillance technologies. Meanwhile the state authorities also have a duty to act, he says. The article puts forward a ‘model statute’ intended to address some core issues around information privacy and data confidentiality issues, along the same lines as rules for the use of commercial data. A key challenge will be to provide for the specific needs of different police departments while guaranteeing basic consistency in data collection and use across the United States, points out Stephen Rushin.